But on the eve of a pivotal campaign, the Bulls are stuck with the choice of either trading Deng in the final season of his six-year, $71.6 million contract, or running the risk of watching him walk away for nothing next summer.
We know those are the only options presently available to the Bulls because negotiations on an extension for Deng died before they ever came to life.
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports,
As Rose returns to the Bulls after missing a full season, his most important teammate—Luol Deng—is privately disappointed over the franchise's unwillingness to engage him in serious contract discussions. Deng could leave as a free agent this summer, could be traded before the February deadline—everything is so unsettled over his future.
The Bulls aren't taking a hard line with Deng out of spite. How could they? The Duke product has endeared himself to coaches, teammates and management by being unfailingly selfless during his tenure in Chicago.
Unfortunately, the financial realities facing the Bulls have the team in a tough spot.
Does a Trade Make Sense?
From an emotional standpoint, it would be difficult for the Bulls to get over trading Deng, a fan favorite and the team's longest-tenured player. But even if they approached the situation with the kind of cold detachment such a tough decision would take, the messy money issue would make pulling off any sensible deal extremely tricky.
Deng will make more than $14 million this season, which means the Bulls would have to take on a player—or package of players—worth roughly the same amount to make any exchange work out under the league's collective bargaining agreement.
But it's more complicated than that.
Chicago has nearly $65 million committed to salaries in 2014-15, a figure that is only so "low" because Deng's deal expires after this season. So from a long-term financial perspective, the only way the Bulls can avoid the dreaded repeater tax next summer is to deal for a player whose contract also comes off the books at the end of the year.
Given those constraints, it's difficult to envision a player on the market whose deal expires after the season, makes roughly $14 million and would be as valuable to the Bulls this year as Deng.
Well, actually, there is one guy who might fit those criteria: Danny Granger.
But if you think there's any chance the Bulls and the Indiana Pacers get together in a one-for-one swap during a year that should see them battling it out atop the Eastern Conference, you're crazy.
Other expiring players expected to be available—Marcin Gortat, Brandon Rush and Kris Humphries, to name a few—either don't match up to Deng's salary or wouldn't represent an on-court upgrade for the Bulls.
Since there are no viable expiring candidates, the Bulls' only other option would be to go after a player whose contract matches Deng's and runs beyond this season. But going that route would present the Bulls with yet another tough choice: Either head into the luxury tax again, or find another way to trim salary in the summer of 2014.
The most obvious way to accommodate another long-term deal would be to use the amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer, who is scheduled to collect $16.8 million in 2014-15. If the Bulls opt to cut Boozer loose to clear up cap space for whoever they acquire in a trade for Deng, they'd effectively be swapping two starters for one.
To justify giving up Deng and Boozer, Chicago would have to be getting a truly transformative star in return. And right now, there's simply no such player available on the trade market. Maybe that'll change by the February deadline, but all indications are that the big names will become available as free agents next summer—not as potential trade chips this year.
Not convoluted enough? Don't worry, there are even more layers to this.
If the Bulls are actually serious about perusing the free-agent market next summer for a star to pair with Rose, they simply can't take on any extra money in a Deng trade. Not only that, but they'll also have to amnesty Boozer, shed another few million dollars elsewhere and hope to work out some kind of sign-and-trade with Deng next summer to land a max player.
Does your brain hurt yet?
Here's the simple summation: The only way trading Deng makes any sense at all is if Chicago gets back a package that makes the team better this season and also requires no future salary commitments whatsoever.
Good luck finding that deal, Chicago.
The Other Guy
The only reason the Bulls can even entertain the notion of trading Deng is because Jimmy Butler has emerged as such a viable replacement.
Don't be mistaken; head coach Tom Thibodeau absolutely loves Deng, a player whose effort he never has to question and whose versatility allows him to affect the game without scoring.
Butler, though, is basically a younger, cheaper version of Deng. Not only that, but he's got substantially more upside as an offensive player. In Chicago's preseason opener against the Pacers, Butler used his athleticism and smarts to work his way to the foul line a dozen times.
Getting to the stripe so frequently takes a combination of aggression and guile that most 24-year-old players don't possess. Toss in a rapidly improving jumper and it's clear that Butler is the future on the wing in Chicago.
Of course, he might also be the present.
Last season, the Bulls were simply better when Butler was on the floor then they were with Deng. According to 82games.com, Chicago's offensive and defensive ratings were markedly improved when Butler played. Deng still posted a marginally positive net rating, but wasn't nearly as valuable as Butler was.
Butler's presence means Deng probably isn't vital to Chicago's future. But that doesn't mean he's not critically important to their present.
The Bulls figure to start both of their terrific wing players this year, giving the team a dynamic pair of long, defensively oriented swingmen who'll make life very difficult on opposing scorers. That's a huge asset, and one the Bulls won't be looking to give away by shipping out Deng this year.
The original question in this piece asked if Deng was critical to the Bulls' future, or the team's biggest trade chip.
What will the Bulls ultimately do with Deng?
It turns out he's neither.
There's no way for Chicago to get fair value by dealing him during the 2013-14 season, and re-signing him next summer would mean paying an onerous luxury tax bill. Neither are great options.
So, really, Deng and the Bulls have to focus on the present. Chicago is ready to contend for a title, and Deng is going to be a big part of that effort. The Bulls' financial situation means he'll almost certainly walk away as an unrestricted free agent in 2014, but at least he's got the chance to win a ring in Chicago before he leaves.